LA Study Class Newsletter [#16]

My Notes:

Most Baha’is that I know of don’t believe in “the calamity” as a physical consequence or don’t believe that it is something they should be worried about. But those that do believe in such a future event as a physical reality (not as a symbolic reality) are more than a bit fundamentalist and dogmatic. This makes sense when you think about it. Since they are, participating in a literal understanding of the writings. Extending this propensity to all avenues of the Faith, its understandable why these same Baha’is would be very fundamentalist in their attitude and approach.

I’ve even been told by some such Baha’is that they refuse to invest for their future in the stock market because of this impending “calamity”. Sheesh.

Talk of the calamity reminds me of the Christian fundamentalist (IOW literal) understanding of the rapture. If you are unfamiliar with this, basically it is the time when the world will end as we know it, those who are true Christians (I guess this means that you have been baptised by the right clergy, attended and tithed the right church, etc.) will physically ascend up into heaven to enjoy perpetual and permanent bliss. Meanwhile, those who remain will be the play things of the devil as he amuses himself by inventing new ways to torment these poor sinful individuals. If you want to take a gander at the lighter side of the rapture, here is a neat video.

It might be useful to remember that Shoghi Effendi started writing about the “calamity” in the 1930s. At that time doom and gloom were readily available (about the only thing being peddled in the markets). So it was rather easy to be swept up in the apocalyptic thinking of that time. Just as no one predicted the shockingly rapid decline from the heights of the roaring 20s, no one could have foreseen the phoenix like rise of the world from the ashes of the depression and World War II. At each turn there were “experts” who were vying to come up with more and more negative views of the present and the future. So you see, I don’t fault the Guardian. After all, he was just a human being seeing the same things, feeling the same powerful emotions and reading the same “experts” in the then media (newspapers).

If you believe some pilgrim notes Shoghi Effendi was even more pessimistic (than appears in the official quotes). In one pilgrim note, he basically said that there were Nazi u-boats (submarines) all along the American coast line, waiting to pounce and invade the US! I have not idea where he got this notion, or whether he actually said words to that effect. But if he did, it wouldn’t surprise me knowning his attitude at the time.

And much later, in the early 1990′s or late 1980s (when the whole environmental movement was in full swing), I remember going to a talk given by Ruhhiyeh Khanum (Shoghi Effendi’s wife and secretary) and hearing her refer to the calamity as perhaps an environmental catastrophe (rather than war, or economic depression, or some other event). We must admit that in each instance, those living at the time were swept up by the zietgeist and were not able to see any other possibility other than the one they were living at that time.

I think such apolyptical, chicken-little beliefs are downright silly. It all boils down to your perspective and how you decide to view life and the world. Since the time that Shoghi Effendi wrote: the “world outlook is steadily darkening” and went on to forecast an “apolyptical upheaval marking the lowest ebb in mankind’s fast-declining fortunes.”. . . some 50 odd years have passed.

In that time, mankind has done remarkable things. Looking back in history since that time we can see amazing achievements, wonderful triumphs and astounding milestones. I don’t want to go into details but they are obvious to anyone who cares to stand back and scan recent history: the information revolution broght on by computers, the internet and the age of instant communication, the increase of life expectancy by 3 months every year, advancements in medical sciences which allow us to treat and often cure diseases, travelling to distant stars, agricultural advancements which allow us to feed everyone on earth, etc.

Humanity is doing very well thank you. And we will continue to do well. In history, each and every time a doomsayer came along, they were a laughing stock in a matter of decades (remember the Club of Rome and their oil prediction? remember much earlier than them, those who said we could not feed our increasing world population?) Each and every time humanity has gone on to astound naysayers by innovating, by creating, inventing and finding a way where none were thought of. We always have and we always will. It is embedded in us and its power flows from our soul. A divine fountain of positive energy to advance through time and space.

So, then, what is the calamity and have we seen it yet or is it yet to come? My personal feeling is that the calamity is not a physical event (earthquake, economic devastation, etc.) but rather something much more powerful and ethereal. Which makes it even more difficult to get a handle on. And have we seen it or is it yet to come? I dunno. Who really cares? In either case, it is not in our hands.

If this is your first newsletter, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.

On with the 70′s class . . .

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[Ed. personal home address]
June, 1977 — Vol. II, No. 11

Dear Baha’i Friends:

Sooner or later — usually sooner — every new Baha’i hears about something called “the calamity.” Although the versions vary depending on who is telling them, descriptions of theis cataclysmic event usually involve a presumption of atomic holocaust, perhaps accompanied by a series of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and the like. Calamity folklore seems to be lodged in the Baha’i community just below the surface, the topic of all manner of rumors and speculation, the sort of stuff that is wryly referred to as “Kitab-i-Hearsay.”

Greg Wahlstrom of Maywood made an extensive survey of the Baha’i writings regarding the calamity and presented his findings at our study class of June 11. Here is a summary of his findings and the discussion that folllowed their presentation.

Baha’u’llah, while unequivocal about the coming of a calamity, is vague about specifics, writing “to disclose it now would not be meet or seemly.” The full quotation, which Shoghi Effendi cites in The World Order of Baha’u’llah (p.33), reads: “The world is in travail and its agitation waxeth day by day. Its face is turned towards waywardness and unbelief. Such shall be its plight that to disclose it now would not be meet or seemly. Its perversity will long continue. And when the appointed hour is come, there shall suddenly appear that which shall cause the limbs of mankid to quake. Then and only then will the Divine Standard be unfurled and the Nightingale of Paradise warble its melody.”

While references to a calamity crop up in the writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi pulled these passages together as he started to review the situation. He began writing about the calamity in the early 1930s, including this excerpt from a letter dated November 28, 1931 (The World Order of Baha’u’llah , p. 46): “That nothing short of the fire of a severe ordeal, unparalleled in its intensity, can fuse present-day civilization, into the integral components of the world commonwealth of the future, is a truth which future events will increasingly demonstrate.” And again, on that same page, he adds: “Nothing but a fiery ordeal, ot of which humanity will emerge, chastened and prepared, can succeed in implanting that sense of responsability which the leaders of a new-born age must arise to shoulder.”

The Guardian uses the term “calamity” in a broad sense, citing the decline in influence of religious institutions, rising nationalism, economic [Ed. illegible word], political confusion, financial upheavals and racial animosity, all as elements of a mounting crisis aggravating the condition of man and rocking the foundation of human civilization.

As the 1930s progressed, and the rise of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany made it evident another European war was in the offing, Shoghi Effendi, observing the economic and political upheavals of that era, began to predict the coming conflict would play a major role in unifying mankind. In March, 1936, in a letter that closes out the text of The World Order of Baha’u’llah , there appears a section entitled — prophetically enough — “Divine Retribution.” In that section the Guardian poses the rhetorical question: “Must a series of profound convulsions stir and rock the human race ere Baha’u’llah can be enthroned in the hearts and consciences of the masses, ere His undisputed ascendancy is universally recognized, and the noble edifice of His World Order is reared and established?” He follows this up with a passage reading: “The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race has to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood.” (both from The World Order of Baha’u’llah , p.202)

The culmination of the Guardian’s thinking about the calamity is summarized in The Promised Day is Come, written in March, 1941, when World War II was beginning to hit full stride and half of Europe lay under Nazi domination. He opened the book with the words: “A tempest, unprecedented in its violence, unpredictable in its course, catastrophic in its immediate effects, unimaginably glorious in its ultimate consequences, is at present sweeping the face of the earth. Its driving power is remorselessly gaining in range and momentum . . . smitten by the evidences of its resistless fury.” (The Promised Day is Come, p.1) Shoghi Effendi then introduces what will become a recurrent theme in his writings about the calamity: its dual nature. “The judgement of God . . . is both a retributory calamity and an act of holy and supreme discipline. It is at once a visitation from God and a cleansing process for all mankind. Its fires punish the perversity of the human race, and weld its component parts into one organic, indivisible, world-embracing community.” (ibid, p.2) The Baha’is of the world, he wrote, were witnessing firsthand nothing less than the “death pangs” of an “effete and godless” order which had spurned Baha’u’llah and, at the same time, the “birth pangs” of a “divine and redemptive” order proclaimed by the Manifestation (ibid, p.16).

As World War II spread and intensified, involving every major nation of the world, Shoghi Effendi became increasingly convinced the global war was the calamity Baha’u’llah had prophesied, when He warned “The time for the destruction of the world and its people hath arrived.” “The promised day is come, the day when tormenting trials will have surged above your heads, beneath your feet, saying: “Taste ye what your hands have wrought!” “Soon shall the blasts of His chastisement beat upon you, and the dust of hell enshroud you.” (ibid, p.1) Lining up those grim prophecies with the course of events, the Guardian noted: “The internecine struggle, now engulfs the generality of mankind, is increasingly assuming in its range and ferocity, the proportions of the titanic upheaval as far back as seventy years ago by Baha’u’llah.” (Messages to America, p.45, May 25, 1941). In December, 1941, after the Pearl Harbor attack, Shoghi Effendi described World War II as “The most great convulsion in violence, planetary in range . . .” ((Messages to America, p.53)

World War II ended without producing the results Shoghi Effendi hoped for and anticipated. Mankind did not unite. Universal peace was not established, the United States and the Soviet Union, one-time military partners, emerged from the war’s aftermath as political rivals and potential combatants, and the Guardian wrote in November, 1948, that the “world outlook is steadily darkening” and forecast an “apolyptical upheaval marking the lowest ebb in mankind’s fast-declining fortunes.” ((Citadel of Faith, p.58)

What has come to be the most widely known and most frequently cited of Shoghi Effendi’s writings on the calamity is his letter “American Baha’is in Time of World Peril.” composed in July, 1954. The letter describes a steadily deteriorating moral and social condition in the United States and includes a warning to the American Baha’is that unless the racism embedded in the nation is not uprooted, it will “cause the street of American cities to run with blood.” (ibid, p.126) And, in perhaps his grimmest and most terrifying language to date, he warned that unresolved racial hatred would worsen “the havoc which the fearful weapons of destruction, raining from the air, and amassed by a ruthless, a powerful and inveterate enemy, will wreak upon those same cities.” “The woes and tribulations which threaten it (America) are partly avoidable, but mostly inevitable and God-sent. . .” he wrote. (ibid, p.126)

In April, 1957, a few months before his death, the Guardian returned to the topic of the calamity, summarizing its distinguishing characteristics as: “The violent derangement of the world’s equilibrium, the trembling that will seize the limbs of mankind; the radical transformation of human society; the rolling up of the present-day order; the fundamental changes affecting the structure of government; the weakening of the pillars of religion; the rise of dictatorships; the spread of tyranny; the fall of monarchies; the decline of ecclesiastical institutions; the increase of anarchy and chaos; the extension and consolidation of the Movement of the Left; the fanning into flame of the smouldering fire of racial strife; the development of infernal engines of war; the burning of cities; the contamination of the atmosphere of the earth — these stand out as the signs and portents” of a “retributive calamity” which must “sooner or later, afflict a society which, for the most part, and for over a century, has turned a deaf ear to the Voice of God’s Messenger in this day. . .” (Messages to the Baha’i World, p.103)

Our discussion of the above quotations produced some interesting comments, including the observation that some Baha’is cite Shoghi Effendi’s writings as justification for sitting tight and doing nothing. They believe the Guardian’s assertion that “nothing short of the fire of a severe ordeal, unparalleled in its intensity, can fuse and weld the discordant entities that constitute the elements of present-day civilization, into the integral components of the world commonwealth of the future, is a truth which future events will increasingly demonstrate” absolves the Baha’i community from much other than staying out of the line of fire.

But on closer examination, it becomes evident that such a view is mistaken. It is true — at least as far as Shoghi Effendi was concerned — that some sort of catablysmic event is required to provide the impetus for unifying mankind since, for the most part, it has ignored the message of Baha’u’llah. But the most such an event, no matter how far ranging and jolting its impact, can do is create a worldwide awareness of the need for unity, but only the Baha’i Faith can provide that unity. It is the work of the Baha’is to help spiritualize mankind.

There is also ample evidence that the notion of a single-event calamity — some universal “kaboom” and then everyone embraces the Faith — is wrong. Calamities, according to Shoghi Effendi, have been with us for quite a while, usually in the forms of wars, civil disorders, political upheavals, economic fractures and a whole host of social dysfunctions which have plagued the planet for years. It is even arguable that the calamity began more than 100 years ago when the kings and religious leaders who were the direct recipients of letters from Baha’u’llah ignored the advice and warnings of those messages. Napolean III, to whom Baha’u’llah sent two letters, is the classic case in point. In the mid-19th century, he made France the most powerful nation in Europe and was considered one of hte most outstanding monarchs of the day. But Shoghi Effendi describes the emperor as “a dreamer, a conspirator, of shifting nature, hypocritical and reckless” (The Promised Day is Come, p.50). Napolean III utterly ignored Baha’u’llah’s first letter, reportedly scoffing “If this man is God, I am two gods!”. Baha’u’llah sent another letter, writing, “For what thou hast done, thy kingdom shall be thrown into confusion, and thine empire shall pass from thine hands, as a punishment for that which thou hast wrought. Then wilt thou know how thou hast plainly erred.” (The Promised Day is Come, p.29). The rest, as they say, is history. The French army, under direct command of Napolean III, suffered a disasterous defeat from the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan in 1870. The French empire collapsed and with it the monarchy. Napoleon was forced into lifelong exile and died a bitter, broken man. That may have been the first, but was not the last, calamity to occur as a result of ignoring Baha’u’llah. Calling World War II “the second stage in the global havoc which humanity, forgetful of its God and heedless of the clear warnings uttered by His appointment Messenger for this day, must, alas inevitably experience” (Citadel of Faith, p.125) Shoghi Effendi indicated clearly there is more to come.

Although there are no known details about the final calamity itself in terms of severity, duration and impact, there is a tantalizing clue about its timing provided by Abdu’l-Baha. Shoghi Effendi cites that clue in The Promised Day is Come on pages 125-126, quoting from a tablet of the Master that has come to be called the “Seven Candles of Unity.” In that tablet, Abdu’l-Baha looks ahead to a growing sense of unity on earth during this, the 20th century, the “century of light.” The Master compares this unity to candles, identifying them as politicical unity, unity of thought in world undertakings, unity in freedom, religious unity, the unity of nations, racial unity and agreement on an international auxiliary language. It is his fith candle — the unity of nations — which offers the most intriguing possibilities. Abdu’l-Baha writes: “The fifth candle is the unity of nations — a unity which in this century will be securely established. . .” Shoghi Effendi echoes that assurance in commenting on the tablet.

Nor is this the only place in which Abdu’l-Baha makes reference to the establishment of world unity by the year 2000. In a letter the Master wrote to the editor of The Christian Commonwealth in 1013, He said, “In the past century freedom was proclaimed, and the foundation of liberty was laid in all the western countries. . . Now in this radiant century in which the world of humanity is being matured it is assured that the Flag of Universal Peace shall become unfurled and shall wave over all regions of the globe.” (Star of the West, Vol. V, No. 8, p.120)

What makes these passages noteworthy is the sequence of future events we know of in outline detail. We know, for example, that the calamity will precede what we Baha’is call the “Lesser Peace.” We identify that as an interim peace which the leaders of the nations of the world will agree to following the calamity. This, in time, we are told, will be followed by the Most Great Peace. This peace will be brought about when the Baha’i Faith permeates the planet, spiritualizing its inhabitants. Abdu’l-Baha’s remarks in the “Seven Candles of Unity” and in the letter to the editor of the Christian Commonwealth make it plain He believed the “Lesser Peace” which He called “the unity of nations” and the “Flag of Universal Peace” would be established “in this century.” For that to happen, the calamity must occur sometime before the year 2000.

Our class discussion ended with a review of a recent (May 26) letter the National Spiritual Assembly sen to the American Baha’i Community on the topic of the calamity. The one-page letter fudged on the matter of timing, saying “It is true that Abdu’l-Baha anticipated that the Lesser Peace could be established within the twentieth century.” (The italics are ours, but you can keep them.) It seemed to the class members that both Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi were more direct than the members of the National Spiritual Assembly were willing to credit. But whatever disagreement we might have with the National Spiritual Assmebly letter, it cites two important points that ought not be overlooked in this survey about the calamity. Quoting from a letter written by the Guardian’s secretary to an individual believer in 1946, it says: “All we know is that the Lesser and Most Great Peace will come — their exact dates we do not know. The same is true as regards the possiblity of a future war; we cannot state dogmatically it will or will not take place — all we know is that mankind must suffer and be punished sufficiently to make it turn to God.”

“The real calamity, it seems to us,” the Assembly members wrote, “would be for us Baha’is not to teach, not to act in accordance with the specific guidance we have been given to help mankind turn to God,” That was sentiment the class members echoed.

METAMORPHOSIS DEPT. Class members held a special meeting on June 18 to discuss reorganizing our sessions to make them more productive and meaningful. While most of our sessions have been worthwhile and insightful, a few have been unfocused and loose. Attendance and participation by class members has been spotty and we’ve neer resolved the basic conflict between being a kind of advanced study class and something more academic and serious. We thrashed out this issue at some length on the 18th. Tony Lee and Mehrdad Amanat spearheaded the reform movement. Mehrdad argued there is a need for new ideas in the Baha’i Faith, at least in this region, where the lack of intellectual stimulation locally makes a more formal, thoughtful class a necessity. Tony agreed, saying the Baha’i community is still basing its conepts on the intellectual groundwork of people like Horace Holley, who did their writing in the 1930s and 40s, when the Baha’i social principles were still revolutionary and progressive. Now, some of them are commonplace and most have lost their social appeal. HE said the class could help provide fresher stimulation to understand how the Faith relates to present-day society and its problems. Both argued that class participants present written reports on some aspect of the Baha’i Faith.

The main objection voiced by some people to all this emphasis on serious academics was the threat of an ego-gouging competition it posed. Those who present papers want to do so in an atmosphere of support and reinforcement, not as participants in some cerebral contest in which the unfortunate slob who makes a factual blunder or faulty conclusion becomes the object of redicule and public humiliation. The purpose of hte class is to discover truth, not amass points on some cosmic scale of standing. One way proposed to minimixe the risk of intellectual oneupmanship was to hold what might be called a “works in progress” session as part of the classes. During this period, class members at work on topics would reveal how their research is going and solicit comments and suggestions from other participants on how to proceed. It is hoped that, in this way, everyone will become more involved as a colleague, not a critic of the reports of others.

Those who argued for changing the class format said its basic purpose — to provide a forum for thoughtful topics and the free exchange of ideas on serious and difficult problems confronting the Faith — would remain unaltered. They said by requiring the writing and presenting of papers, ideas will me more organized and conclusions clearer than is now the case. One other advantage of having written papers is that, once completed, they can be exchanged with other Baha’i study groups including those in Canada and England. eventually once having accumulated a backlog of papers, we might be able to have them published. After more discussion, there was a concensus to go ahead on a more academic leve, complete with written papers.

Near the end of the meeting, several class members volunteered to take on topics which gives us a supply for future classes. Mehrdad is doing research on the role of the Ulama in 19th century Iran and will present a paper on it for our next lass. (For openers, the Ulama controlled the taxicab franchise in downtown Tehran — if you think that’s no big deal, just try getting a cab after Friday mosque services.) Joel Suffens signed up for the topic of Baha’i Faith and Civil Disobedience (or, How to Avoid Military Service, Unjust LAws and Other Unpleasantries Without Really Trying). Bob Ballenger has promised to regale class members with insights into the conflict between individual rights and the collective character of the Faith (being a short course primer on asserting your independance without risking your voting rights, or something like that). Tony Lee will delve into more background on the Baha’i community of Ishqabad (in which he finally squelches the rumour that their plans included creation of an adult amusement part with a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride called “Collapse of the Old World Order”) Paula Wahlstrom will review — just as soon as she finishes reading — The Quest for Eden, offering her critical analysis of Elena Marsella’s musings on such titilating topics as salvation, resurrention and the long-supressed transubstantiation (only recently legalized between consenting religions).

Other possible topics kicked around for consideration and, as of this writing, still open to anyone who want to sign up for them, were: The Concept of Holy in the Baha’i Faith, the Babi Conference at Badasht, the Concept of Infallibility in the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi: the contrast between public figure and private individual, the Baha’i Faith and its Relations with Other Religions, Contrasts between Western and Persian Apprioaches to the Faith. Book reviews on topics related to the Faith are also welcome as report material.

NEXT CLASS: will be at 2 pm, Sunday, July 10, at Mehrdad Amanat’s apartment [Ed. personal address follows]. The topic will be Mehrdad’s report on the Influence of the Ulama in 19th Century Iran.

PARTING SHOTS: A few recent arrivals have expressed interest in obtaining back copies of these bulletins (God only knows why). They are available, at 50 cents each, from our esteemed treasurer and featherbedder, Paula Wahlstrom [Ed. personal address follows]. Also, to avoid confusion and for the sake of a tad more formality, we’ve begun numbering these newsletters in the traditional volume and number sequence (this one is Vol. II, No.11), retroactive to our first letter of November 9, 1976. We’d also like to remind you that these reports are available only on a subscription basis. The cost is $12 a year, which just about covers our photocopying and mailing expenses. We don’t have a subscription service, which means you are responsible for making sure your own subscription does not expire. We may be disorganized, but at least we’re sloppy. Those who do not pay up will be summarily dropped from our mailing list. This diktat does not apply to our overseas subscribers who will, no doubt, sigh with relief that they are not subject to such police-state treatment.

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The original scanned documents can be found here.